If some of the things that Elon Musk says and does sound absurd, that’s because on one level they very much are. On this occasion, for example, Musk’s assistant had just handed him some cookies-and-cream ice cream with sprinkles on top, and he then talked earnestly about saving humanity while a blotch of the dessert hung from his lower lip.
Musk’s ready willingness to tackle impossible things has turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley, where fellow CEOs like Page speak of him in reverential awe, and budding entrepreneurs strive “to be like Elon” just as they had been striving in years past to mimic Steve Jobs. Silicon Valley, though, operates within a warped version of reality, and outside the confines of its shared fantasy, Musk often comes off as a much more polarizing figure. He’s the guy with the electric cars, solar panels, and rockets peddling false hope. Forget Steve Jobs. Musk is a sci-fi version of P. T. Barnum who has gotten extraordinarily rich by preying on people’s fear and self-hatred. Buy a Tesla. Forget about the mess you’ve made of the planet for a while.
I’d long been a subscriber to this latter camp. Musk had struck me as a well-intentioned dreamer—a card-carrying member of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian club. This group tends to be a mix of Ayn Rand devotees and engineer absolutists who see their hyper logical worldviews as the Answer for everyone. If we’d just get out of their way, they’d fix all our problems. One day, soon enough, we’ll be able to download our brains to a computer, relax, and let their algorithms take care of everything. Much of their ambition proves inspiring and their works helpful. But the techno-utopians do get tiresome with their platitudes and their ability to prattle on for hours without saying much of substance. More disconcerting is their underlying message that humans are flawed and our humanity is an annoying burden that needs to be dealt with in due course. When I’d caught Musk at Silicon Valley events, his highfalutin talk often sounded straight out of the techno-utopian playbook. And, most annoyingly, his world-saving companies didn’t even seem to be doing all that well.